Liverpool can thwart Pep Guardiola by pursuing potential Thiago heir after rare transfer setback

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Fabinho-Jordan-Henderson-Thiago. It’s established as Liverpool’s first-choice midfield. But for how much longer?

Thiago is 31 years old, while Henderson will turn 32 later this month. They’re not exactly on the verge of retirement, but both players have struggled with injuries during their careers, and that could certainly restrict their longevity.

Fabinho, on the other hand, is still only 28. Rather than leaving his theoretical peak window, he’s slap bang in the middle of it. A standard-setter in his position, he should be able to hold down the number six role for another four or five years yet.

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So how does that square with links to Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips? The Reds, according to The Telegraph, are monitoring the Englishman as they gear up for the start of the summer transfer window on Friday. That’s after heavy links to Aurélien Tchouaméni, who now looks set to join Real Madrid.

Phillips and Fabinho predominantly play in the same position. In his first Premier League season under Marcelo Bielsa, Phillips typically served as the sitting midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 formation. And last season, he played 18 of his 21 games as a DM.

There are perhaps two ways to accommodate both players in the same side. The first is to deploy them alongside one another in a 4-2-3-1 shape.

Fabinho has been used to anchoring the midfield during his time at Anfield but he has experience of operating in a two from his time at Monaco. Phillips has also formed part of a duo since Jesse Marsch took over at Elland Road and implemented his 4-2-3-1.

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This system change could very well be the next evolution of Jürgen Klopp’s side. But what if he intends to stick with the three?

Fabinho could remain at the base of midfield, with Phillips instead taking over from Thiago (eventually) as the left central midfielder. While the 26-year-old has played most of his club football as a defensive midfielder, he did at times operate in a three for England at last summer’s European Championships. Like Tchouaméni, he has the versatility to play both roles.

Rice and Phillips shared much of the defensive workload in that system, with Mason Mount granted more attacking license, much as the RCM typically is at Liverpool.

What’s more, Phillips does share a key attribute with Thiago: an impressive range of passing. In his first PL campaign, he averaged 4.7 accurate long balls per 90, and while that dropped to 3.5 in 2021/22, he’s still roughly in the same ballpark as Thiago (4.0).

Overall, he ranks in the 88th percentile among positional peers in the big five leagues for long passes completed, and the 78th for switches of play. Thiago is way up in the 99th and 95th for these categories, but expecting Phillips to match the Spaniard would be excessive. His numbers stack up well in their own right.

Like Thiago, he also possesses a certain elegance. There’s a reason that he’s nicknamed the Yorkshire Pirlo.

The Italian himself has played down the comparisons in an interview with The Athletic but he does believe that Phillips, ‘who’s a bit of a regista’, has broken the mold among English midfielders. He may share the same nationality as Henderson and James Milner, but he’s far more classically continental in his playing style.

Phillips, then, is equipped to play for a top team alongside an already-world-class defensive midfielder. It’s telling that Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are reportedly interested even though Rodri was perhaps their player of the season.

He’s expected to cost £ 60m, which for Liverpool would represent a record outlay on a midfielder. But he’s still in his mid-20s, he’s homegrown and he’s proven himself in England. After the Reds missed out on signing Tchouaméni, there’s a compelling case to pursue Phillips next, before moving onto his well-known and more attack-minded compatriot at Borussia Dortmund.

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